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The Battle of the Experts

WHO should we listen to?

Katherine Rica Hagen

on 21 April 2010

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Transcript of The Battle of the Experts

The Battle
of the Experts When we hear a piece of information that surprises us, we often react by saying, “Where’d you hear that?” It’s a good question, and one we should ask more often, because some sources are better – sometimes much better – than others. Today's goals...
* Learn to distinguish between expert and non-expert statements and to understand the limits of expert authority.
* Examine the role of bias among experts.
* Learn the difference between primary and secondary sources, explore the track records of various sources, and realize the importance of consensus among disinterested sources.
Because the Internet has brought the average person into contact with a volume of information that would have been nearly unimaginable to anyone outside a large university just a generation ago, we’re now able to stay informed about a bewildering variety of events from the mundane (today’s weather or the score of last night’s Yankees game) to the tawdry (hours of footage of Anna Nicole Smith) to the tragic (shootings at Virginia Tech) to the profound (videos showing the development of a human embryo).
But the vast quantity of information available is not without a price. For every Abu Ghraib photo uncovered one can find a crank extolling his “proof” that the destruction of the World Trade Center was a Jewish plot. A search for Martin Luther King Jr. may turn up “Letter from Birmingham Jail” – or a white supremacist home page. No longer do consumers of information have to work to find information. The difficulty now lies in finding good information. For students, evaluating sources is often one of the most difficult aspects of any research project. It requires making judgments about a source’s credibility, which in turn means asking essential questions: Is the source objective? Is the source presenting straight facts? Are the facts being filtered through another author’s analysis? If so, is that author objective? Are the source’s conclusions in line with those of most other experts in the field? Have we verified those conclusions by assessing the facts ourselves? When is expert authority appropriate? When my physics teacher tells me that the speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second, I am probably justified in accepting that figure as accurate. Similarly, I can cite the Encyclopedia Britannica as reasonably good evidence that the philosopher John Stuart Mill was born on May 20, 1806. BUT! Citing Albert Einstein’s reservations about the use of nuclear weapons as a reason for believing that all nuclear weapons should be banned is not a particularly credible reason for opposing nuclear weapons. WHY? Einstein’s knowledge of nuclear physics does not automatically translate into any particular expertise in morality or in public policy. “inappropriate appeal to authority,” Video There are a lot of people who claim expertise in different subjects.

Many times those claims are exaggerated.

Indeed, it is fairly commonplace to find experts in one particular field who attempt to claim expertise in completely unrelated fields. Obviously the irony of a police officer shooting himself in the foot just as he boasts of being the only person in the room qualified to handle a handgun is amusing. But it also demonstrates an important lesson: Not everyone who claims to be an expert really is an expert.
Who counts as an expert? Your handout lists 6 different occupations. Your Task:

*Research what each occupation actually does.

*Record your findings on the handout. Now, we need a list of topics on which a person from each profession could reasonably be considered an expert... Bias, Bias Everywhere Not all experts are created equal. Merely possessing the right set of credentials is NOT a guarantee of good information Think: a stockbroker with an Ivy League MBA is probably a good source of financial advice--unless that stockbroker is attempting to sell us stock in a company that he owns. Then we have to be slightly more suspicious Real-life example....
Dr. James P. Grigson, a Texas psychiatrist, testified in a number of capital (i.e., death penalty) cases in the 1980s.

In Texas, a jury may recommend a capital sentence only if it believes that the defendant, if released, would probably commit violent crimes in the future.

Dr. Grigson was paid by Texas prosecutors each time he testified in a capital case, and his testimony was predictable: The defendant would probably go on to commit violent crimes. In all, Grigson testified in 111 capital cases over an 18-year period. All but nine of those resulted in executions. Half of you guys have Handout #2 (Rimland, “Vaccinations: the Overlooked Factors.”)

The other half have Handout #3 (Offit, “Vaccines and Autism.”)

All of you have Handout #4 (A chart to record your information) Outline the basic facts from your article on your Handout #4 (the chart for information about the articles) discuss with your table partner:
* To what extent do Dr. Rimland and Dr. Offit agree about the link between vaccines and autism?
* How do Rimland and Offit differ on the facts?
* Why do you think that these experts might disagree?
Now, research, alone, the experts who have authored the articles.

Keep in mind:
* What is your expert’s background? Does he have any personal agenda? (Hint: Try searching for Offit and Merck; also, be sure to look at Rimland’s personal history.)
* Who sponsored the expert? (Hint: Start by looking up the essay itself.)
* Who funds that organization? (Hint: The “About Us” page often has helpful information)
* Does the organization seem to have any particular agenda?
Now, take a look at Handout #5: ("MMR Vaccine and Autism Fact Sheet" by the CDC)

Compare your expert source to the findings of the CDC (record on Handout #4). Questions to consider:

* Do the two agree about the basic facts?

* Does the fact that your expert agrees (or disagrees) with the CDC mean that you should (or shouldn’t) rely upon that expert’s testimony?
--Does it mean they are (or aren’t) right?
--Does it mean they are (or aren’t) biased?

* What does the exercise tell you about relying upon experts?
Finding Objectivity Some experts may be biased, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t still be useful. Indeed, a great many experts do hold particular opinions, but also cite very good reasons for holding those opinions. The fact that an expert holds a particular view does not mean that s/he cannot be trusted; it means only that we cannot rely on just that expert’s word. The point of Exercise #2 was not to show that experts’ opinions are invalid, but to show that we should not get in the habit of taking experts at their word. A bit of skepticism is entirely healthy – even when it comes to expert opinion. Whenever possible, we should test evidence. The following tests, adapted from “unSpun,” are used as rules of thumb by researchers and writers Check out Handout #6 for the guidelines... Is the source highly regarded and widely accepted? There are a number of long-standing organizations we know we can count on for reliable unbiased information. For instance, for job statistics, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is every economist’s basic source. Is the source an advocate? Claims made by political parties, candidates, lobbying groups, salesmen and other advocates may be true but are usually self-serving and as a result may be misleading; they require special scrutiny. Always compare their information with other sources. What is the source’s track record? Look for previous experience. What method is used? Good research will employ methods that are commonly accepted in the discipline. Many studies will have to rely on estimates; good studies will minimize those estimates and will, to the extent possible, draw on large, random samples of information in a uniform way. Does the source “show its work”? Good researchers always explain how they arrived at their conclusions. Is the sample random? News organizations and Web sites are fond of conducting “unscientific” polls. Viewers or visitors are asked to express a preference, and the results are reported. This is just a marketing method designed to draw interest; the results are utterly meaningless because the sample is self-selected, not random. Some such polls have been intentionally rigged. Is there a control group? Good scientific procedure requires a “control” to provide a valid basis for comparison. For example, in tests of new drugs one group gets a placebo, with no active ingredients, to provide a point of comparison with the group that gets the actual drug. Does the source have the requisite skill? A trained epidemiologist should be trusted more than a newspaper headline writer to evaluate whether a cluster of cancer cases was caused by something in the water or was just a statistical fluke. Have the results been replicated or contradicted? Sometimes one study tells a story that isn’t backed up by later research. Have the results been repeated in similar studies? Do other researchers agree, or do they come up with contrary findings? Last Activity...
I will assign you one of the following oranizations:
*American Enterprise Institute
*Brookings Institution
*Cato Institute
*Center for Responsive Politics
*Citizens for Tax Justice
*Media Matters
*National Taxpayers Union Your goals:

*what, if any, leanings your assigned group has

*how reliable the research from your particular group really is Some questions to consider:

* Who works for the group?
* What are their backgrounds?
* Who is on the board of directors and what are their backgrounds?
* Who funds the group in question?
* How frequently are scholars from the group quoted? (a "Gale group" search of major newspapers might be helpful here)In what contexts are scholars from the group quoted?
* What sort of reputation does the group have?
Findings: American Enterprise Institute AEI describes itself as dedicated to “limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability and open debate.”

AEI does not disclose donors but says that in 2003 it received 36 percent of its funding from individuals, 35 percent from foundations and 23 percent from corporations.

The link on AEI’s Web site to short publications leads to the organization’s briefer research reports and findings; visitors can also find resources classified by research area.

FactCheckED Comments
AEI’s standards for factual accuracy are high, though its reports have a distinctly partisan tilt.

Political Leanings

Web Address


Campaign Finance; Congress; Courts & Law; Crime; Domestic Policy; Economy & Jobs; Education; Energy & Environment; Government Spending; Health & Healthcare Insurance; Immigration; Medicare/Medicaid; National Security; Social Security; Taxes; Trade & Foreign Policy; Welfare & Income; Women's Issues Brookings Institution Brookings is the oldest and one of the best-known of the Washington-based “think tanks,” tracing its origins back to 1916 and founder Robert Somers Brookings, a wealthy St. Louis businessman. Its scholars generally have very strong academic credentials.

Reports from the institute and its scholars can be viewed by research programs, policy centers and research projects. They fall mainly into the categories of competitiveness, education, migration, health care or energy security.

Brookings says it is funded by “foundations, corporations, and individuals, and to a lesser extent by endowment income.”
FactCheckED Comments

Brookings has a well-earned reputation for scholarly excellence. Its reports are, for the most part, clearly written and can be fine guides to understanding how government programs work, or don't work. It has a reputation for leaning slightly to the left.

Political Leanings

Web Address

Campaign Finance; Civil Rights; Congress; Courts & Law; Crime; Domestic Policy; Economy & Jobs; Education; Energy & Environment; Government Spending; Guns; Health & Healthcare Insurance; Immigration; Medicare/Medicaid; National Security; Social Security; Taxes; Trade & Foreign Policy; Welfare & Income; Women's Issues Cato Institution Cato Institute describes its work as broadening public-policy debate on “individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace.” For the last decade, Cato has supported Social Security reform through private accounts and championed deregulation of the drug industry. Cato was founded in 1977 by Edward H. Crane, a chartered financial analyst and former vice president of Alliance Capital Management Group. Most of Cato’s funding comes from private foundations and individuals, with only a small amount from corporations.

Cato is thought of as a libertarian think tank, and its scholars tend to argue for free markets and against taxes and government regulation. They also strongly rejects government infringement on individual rights.

Cato’s publications and reports can be explored by research area, which include defense and national security, constitutional issues, and a variety of domestic issues. The institute hosts a separate site focusing on Social Security.

FactCheckED Comments
Cato's research is thorough and well-documented, and advances a libertarian agenda.

Political Leanings

Web Address

Abortion; Campaign Finance; Civil Rights; Congress; Courts & Law; Crime; Domestic Policy; Economy & Jobs; Education; Energy & Environment; Government Spending; Guns; Health & Healthcare Insurance; Immigration; Medicare/Medicaid; National Security; Social Security; Taxes; Trade & Foreign Policy; Welfare & Income; Women's Issues Center for Responsive Politics The Center for Responsive Politics tracks political donations and their influence on public policy. It keeps an exhaustive database of all federally disclosed donations received by presidential and congressional candidates. Visitors may find, for example, how much the tobacco industry or the pharmaceutical industry has donated in a given election and to whom.

The organization accepts no money from political parties or corporations. Funding comes from the Ford, Carnegie, Joyce and Sunlight foundations and the Pew Charitable Trusts, along with individual contributions. The records maintained on the Web site are searchable by donor, recipient, state, industry, locality, year and election cycle. Visitors can find campaign finance profiles for all elected officials, which include top contributors and campaign expenditures, as well as personal financial disclosures for all election cycles in which the official participated. Industry profiles are available, as well, to track which lawmakers are most popular with, say, the energy sector. Visitors may also enter a ZIP code or state to see how much people who live there have donated and to whom.

The Center has also sliced and diced the disclosure reports that lobbyists must file with the Senate and made them searchable in a number of ways.

FactCheckED Comments
Journalists and partisans on both sides of the campaign-finance debate rely on this well-designed Web site to track money raised and spent by candidates, parties and independent political groups.

Political Leanings

Web Address

Campaign Finance; Congress Citizens For Tax Justice Citizens for Tax Justice advocates for “closing corporate tax loopholes” and “requiring the wealthy to pay their fair share.” Its stated goal is “to make taxes a better deal for middle- and low-income American families.”

In its advocacy, CTJ makes use of projections generated by the Microsimulation Tax Model developed by its sister organization, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. The model is one of the few existing computer programs capable of projecting how a particular tax provision or tax proposal will affect persons at different income levels. At CTJ’s Web site, visitors may search by issue, such as federal tax legislation.
The site offers serious analyses on how tax and budget measures and proposals, at the state and federal level, will affect lower- and middle-income taxpayers. CTJ’s director, Robert S. McIntyre offers biting criticisms and expert analysis of tax provisions favoring business and of attempts to repeal the estate tax, among other topics, and is often quoted in the media. The Web site currently discloses little about the group’s funding, though in the past it has been financed in part by labor unions. ITEP receives grants from a number of foundations, including Rockefeller and Annie E. Casey.

FactCheckED Comments
The accuracy of CTJ's work is seldom questioned, but the information is selected to support arguments that business and the wealthy should pay a greater share of the tax burden.

Political Leanings

Web Address

Domestic Policy; Taxes Media Matters Media Matters for America defines itself as a “progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.” It’s an attempt to do for the left what the Media Research Center does for the right.
Media Matters is a not-for-profit organization launched in 2004 by David Brock, a conservative-turned-liberal journalist, with the help of former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta. Media Matters’ money comes from a combination of grants and individual donors, some of whom are well-known supporters of liberal causes.
The group’s Web site maintains an archive of rapid-response items on examples of conservative bias in news coverage. They can be searched or browsed by issue, outlet, show or individual. Media Matters’ favorite targets include conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly.
Longer research reports documenting conservative misinformation are sporadically posted on the home page. The organization is also active in organizing its readers and advocating progressive causes by “notify[ing] activists, journalists, pundits, and the general public about instances of misinformation.”

FactCheckED Comments
Research is often well documented, using government reports, verbatim transcripts of interviews and independent findings, but facts are selected to support the liberal side of the story.

Political Leanings

Web Address

Domestic Policy National Taxpayers Union National Taxpayers Union is a lobbying organization favoring “lower taxes and smaller government.” It favors scrapping the income tax in favor of a “flat tax” or a national sales tax.Since its founding in 1969, the Taxpayers Union has been a critic of what it sees as wasteful federal spending, saying “NTU staffers know a boondoggle when they see it.”
The NTU’s home page offers links to its most recent research, including a regular report on “How Taxpayers Fared” in the most recent election from its point of view. The site also offers a useful FAQ about “congressional pay and perks.”
Some NTU material is useful for researchers, notably its calculations of the pensions paid to retiring House and Senate members and its analysis of what lawmakers spend on travel or office expenses. But questions have arisen about its motives for taking on certain issues, such as when it defended Microsoft against antitrust charges in the U.S. and Europe after receiving $215,000 in software from the company. NTU’s anti-tax stance leads it to rate Republicans more favorably than Democrats. Nevertheless, NTU often criticizes both Republican and Democratic lawmakers for what it terms wasteful travel or office spending.

FactCheckED Comments
NTU keeps tabs on spending by Senate and House members, but its strongly anti-tax perspective colors much of its research.

Political Leanings
Conservative, strongly anti-tax

Web Address

Congress; Domestic Policy; Government Spending; Taxes All in all, you
CITE.... http://infotrac.galegroup.com/itweb/stoneycreek?db=GIC
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